Attending the Open Forum at Davos at the time of the World Economic Forum has become almost a habitual aspect of my winter break these past three years, especially seeing as it is right around the corner from where I live. It is a place of heated discussion and exchange between world leaders and the public and a great opportunity to meet new people. In the following, I render my personal impressions and experiences of this year’s Open Forum.

Image courtesy Crossroads Foundation, © 2014. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy Crossroads Foundation, © 2014. Some rights reserved.

The run-up

Each January, locals of the Prättigau region in the canton of Graubünden (Switzerland) witness a now-familiar sequence of events. The first is a steady trickle of military vehicles at the beginning of the month. Their arrival gives rise to a number of military, as well as police checkpoints along the windy road that connects Landquart and Davos.

The second change-in-landscape is the sudden ubiquity of gigantic billboards on farm rooftops and chalets, advertising Chinese tires, American winter boots, German off-roaders and populist Swiss People’s Party slogans.

The third, which usually sets in towards the end of the month, in advance of the 22nd of January this year, is the onset of a never-ending traffic jam on that single road between Landquart and Davos, consisting almost exclusively of sleek black rental cars with darkened  windows and licence plates labelled “Corps Diplomatique”. These in turn are almost exclusively driven by sullen-looking chauffeurs wearing crisp suits, aviators and wired ear plugs.

The fourth phenomenon is the onset of the sound of helicopters, thundering up and down the valley, once proceedings have begun at Davos. They arrive around the clock, sometimes in groups of up to four, depending on who is being flown in.

Taking it easy

Yet, on average, the locals of the Prättigau, although they sometimes roll their eyes at yet another helicopter and yet-another-military-checkpoint, shrug off the WEF, which is the reason for all of the commotion.

In fact, most of them have come to see it as a business opportunity, more than anything else. After all, they represent a potential customer base of over 2500 people, a large number of whom may return the following year. Some of them also view the WEF as an opportunity to meet people from all over the world and to hear what they have to say about the state of the global market.

For most of us, there are two things to do during the WEF Week in Davos:

The checklist

The first is to ski (and snowboard). The WEF Week is – by far – the best opportunity to hit the slopes. This is because most hotels from Davos to Klosters to Küblis and beyond, are fully booked by people who, on average, do not know how to ski, leaving the pistes of Parsenn, Madrisa and the Jakobshorn virtually empty.

The second thing to do, as a member of the public, is to attend the Open Forum. This is what I did on behalf of the Foreign Affairs Review this year.

The Open Forum has accompanied the WEF since 2003 and takes place at the Swiss Alpine School, near the train station of Davos Platz. On average, it features two podium discussions per day throughout the duration of the WEF and invites the public to pose questions to the panelists at the end.

This year’s discussions included immigration, ethnical capitalism, entrepreneurship, Swiss banking secrecy and gender equality, among others. They can be viewed here.

Investment and long-term vision

Perhaps the most engaging discussion this year –the one I believe to be most relevant for St. Andrews students – was entitled Higher Education: Investment or Waste? The discussion can be viewed here.

The panelists included Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Faphne Koller, Co-Foudner and Co-Chief Executive Officer of Coursera, Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour at INSEAD, Sean Rush, President and Chief Executive Officer of JA Worldwide, and Zach Sims, Columbia drop-out as well as Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Codeacademy. The discussion was moderated by the lively David Callaway, the Editor-in-Chief of USA Today.

In my opinion, the main question the panel asked itself was this: Is a university degree worth the investment in time and money?

According to the recently published Education at a Glance 2013 report by the OECD, students in OECD and partner countries spend approximately 13,528 USD per year on university tuition. The University of St. Andrews itself has raised its tuition fees for the academic year of 2012/2013 and is no statistical outlier.

This takes place against the backdrop of the aftermath of the global financial crisis, which, according to the report, has had an especially heavy impact on youth unemployment. In 2011, 16% of all 15-29 year olds were neither in employment nor in education. As an add-on, according to The Economist, the cost of attending college in the United States, for example, has increased much more rapidly than either inflation or wages over the past three decades.

The question that the panel asked itself is thus a highly relevant one, especially for current students and recent graduates. Is it a worthy investment?

Rolling out the numbers

While some of the panelists argued that no decisive answer could be given, Angel Gurría staunchly argued that, statistically speaking, the answer is yes. According to OECD findings, educational achievements substantially enhance employability and that, paradoxically, the global financial crisis has only enhanced this. Further, on average, the earnings of tertiary-educated adults are over 1.5 times those of adults with upper secondary education in the OECD. More precisely, male university graduates are expected to earn 330’000 USD more than non-graduates. Female graduates can expect slightly less at 240’000 USD more than non-graduates. Think about what that means.

To some, the above may appear only to give credence to the phrase “lies, damn lies, statistics”. Yet Mr. Gurría proceeded to enhance his argument by stressing repeatedly, that it pays to “go the extra mile”, say, by pursuing a doctoral degree. On this, there was broad-based agreement among the panel and it was perhaps among the most valuable lessons from the Open Forum.

It does not just pay in financial terms, but in recognition and respect from peers and potential employers. Even more importantly, it builds character and it attests to long-term vision. And “Long-term vision”, in the words of Cardinal Turkson, also present at this year’s WEF, “requires the patience to invest in the future”.

P.S. Perhaps, alternatively expressed by Jean-Claude Biver, the bubbly Chief Executive Officer of Hublot, “If you aren’t passionate about anything, at least do something useful.” “Learn Chinese,” was his advice.

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